Mitt Romney, trailing in the polls, needed to prove tonight that he could stand on stage with President Barack Obama as an equal and a plausible president of the United States.
He did that in the crucial first 40 minutes of Wednesday night's debate, addressing Obama respectfully, even warmly — but then tangling with a sometimes hazy and professorial Obama on taxes and deficits.
"You don't just pick the winners and losers — you pick the losers," he told Obama of his energy investments, sliding time and time again into a second person singular address calculated to level the rhetorical playing field.
Romney departed dramatically from the hard conservatism of his primary campaign, downplaying the scope of his tax cuts.
“There will be no tax cut that adds to the deficit," he said, without fully explaining how he'd accomplish that.
And he sought to soften the edge of his cuts with an easy example of the cuts he'd make.
"I'm sorry Jim, but I'm going to stop this subsidy to PBS. I like Big Bird, I like you, too," he said.
And he embraced — to a point — the Simpson-Bowles plan for cutting the deficit, while stopping short of actually crossing the line to support a tax increase.
But Romney's core success was that he won by not losing: He has barely weathered a campaign that reduced him to a smaller figure than President Obama. On stage, they were roughly the same size.